Shireen Ahmed: Sports world must continue push for change under new U.S. president

As the U.S. presidential inauguration is held today, one can’t help but wonder whether the world of sports will be affected by a new leader in the White House.

The world is still reeling from the chaos that Donald Trump incited in his country as well as in a global context. The sports world has certainly never seen this level of disdain towards a sitting president. Many athletes advocated publicly for equity and justice, knowing that these two principles are not something Trump stands for.

Trump drew the ire of many across the sports world during his four years in power. He questioned the intelligence of NBA superstar LeBron James and repeatedly criticized former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and any other NFL player who took a knee to protest police brutality and anti-Blackness.

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said of impeaching Trump: “It’s the least that we can do,” and U.S. national women’s soccer team captain Megan Rapinoe very clearly stated that she would not go to the White House if she won the World Cup. 

Canadian athletes also found themselves involved in Trump-related controversies.

Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr publicly supported Trump during his campaign in November, boldly declaring that Trump was “the kind of teammate I want.” Orr was widely and strongly criticized for taking the position. It might feel like a lifetime ago, but there was heated debate when Sidney Crosby led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the White House to meet with Trump after the team won the Stanley Cup in 2017.

It can be argued that the twice-impeached president may have actually accelerated the processes by which different communities mobilized. Trump was not the main reason for protest; we know that racist systems of anti-Blackness and police brutality existed long before he took office in 2016. But the conversations happening now, led by racialized athletes, are occurring at a rate we have never seen before. Will Joe Biden’s tenure be similar?

Of course we don’t expect that deep-rooted systems of racism, sexism and homophobia will be rectified on the morning of Jan. 20. Biden has much work to do in politics that cuts into the sports realm. The United States is a complex nation, one that struggles with transphobia despite the election of a candidate who thanked the trans community in his victory speech. There are still harmful and exclusionary policies against trans youth in sports. 

I don’t expect that the WNBA will stop campaigning for Black Lives Matter or honouring the memories of victims of police brutality because Trump is no longer in office. The WNBA has been a stunning example of how sports organizations’ platforms can foster positive change through voter mobilization and political engagement. But last time we checked Kelly Loeffler, an unwavering Trump supporter who lost a U.S. Senate runoff race to Rev. Raphael Warnock, still owns the Atlanta Dream.

Last week Robert Saleh became the first Muslim hired as a head coach in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean Muslim communities will stop facing discrimination on the court or off. Just because we are post-Trump, does not mean we are post-racial angst.

The Hockey Diversity Alliance is a perfect example of how something can start from goodwill, but exposes complexities. A committee that was created in order to engage the NHL and explore issues of racism decided to separate from the league altogether. As the impetus to combat inequality continues, we know the roads will be long but sincerity is critical. 

Sports media has also dealt with a reckoning of sorts and recognized the requirement and necessity of grappling with important topics around social justice. The narrative of “Shut Up and Play” has been swiftly replaced with “Leading the Political Way.”

Just last week in a post-game presser, Minnesota Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell was asked to comment on the violent attack on Capitol Hill. Russell flipped the script and requested remarks from the sports reporters who interview him. It was brave and bold.

Asking those to cover the issues engage in these conversations is necessary. When US Open champion Naomi Osaka was asked in September by a tennis reporter about the message of wearing face masks bearing the names of innocent Black victims of violence she replied: “Well, what was the message that you got? [That] was more of the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

Sports are complicated and there is no blueprint to follow. But we can’t lose momentum. The sports world – including fans – cannot be misled to think that we can pull back and relax now that Trump is out of office.

Yes, there are conversations – many of them uncomfortable – happening in sports around racism and justice that have never occurred before. There have been ways in which sports have bettered themselves. We must stay engaged, and ensure that whatever was driving us to take actionable steps continues. We continue in 2021 with energy and focus.

Being aware of what is happening politically is very much reflected in Canadian sport as well. We have Canadian teams and athletes playing in American cities and leagues. We also have a responsibility.

Skate Canada, the governing body of figure skating in Canada (historically a white-dominated sport), has launched an education plan for Anti-Racism and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, in addition to hosting a panel discussion with racialized skaters. It is taking actionable steps. Field Hockey Canada recently hosted a webinar on Racism in Sports and Effective Allyship (in which I participated). 

McGill University changed the name of its men’s sports teams, leaving behind a term offensive to Indigenous communities. Edmonton’s CFL team did something similar after public outcry forced the team to drop ‘Eskimos’ as the team name. 

But this hardly means that Black, Indigenous or People of Colour can stop pushing for change. It means that everyone must continue to set our goals high, and keep the conversations flowing, and remain active participants in our world; a world that intricately weaves politics into our sports. 

Sports are all about resilience in the face of adversity and pushing through difficulty. Fighting injustice is no different. This process has momentum and hopefully it shall continue to render sports radically better.

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